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Where Is The Deafblind Representation On The Indian Big Screen?

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We’re celebrating Helen Keller month. In many countries of the world, Helen Keller is the most famous person with deafblindness. With a unique and complex disability and amazing accomplishments, many filmmakers found inspiration in her story.

Representation matters on the big screen. The visibility it provides to communities decides whether they exist for the world or not. Representation is powerful.

When films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians hit the big screens it created a tsunami online of people saying, “I finally feel seen.” Black Panther’s all black and Crazy Rich Asian’s all Asian cast screamed representation.

So when a short film titled ‘Feeling Through’ was nominated for the Oscars in the short film category, all eyes turned to the deafblind community all around the world. For the first time after a long time, the community got their shot at representation

on the big screen. Though this film has not been the only one to have a story of a person with deafblindness, it is the first one to have a person with deafblindness (Robert Tarango) acting in it.

16 Years Since Deafblindness Was On The Indian Screen

People with deafblindness in India had their moment in the spotlight when Sanjay Leela Bhansali directed the movie ‘Black‘(2005) – a classic. It was an adaptation of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life which Bhansali co-wrote. Amitabh Bachchan played the role of Debraj – the headstrong teacher and Rani Mukherjee played the role of Michele- a person with deafblindness.

A still from the movie Black. A person with deafblindness and her teacher communicating through touch.
Amitabh Bachchan communicating to Rani Mukherjee through Tactile Sign Language in the movie.

The first word Michele learns in the movie is Water. When she signs the word Water it meant that Michele understood what it was and knows how to ask for it. It was at that moment in the movie that her journey towards education began. Michele addresses her teacher as the light that would lighten her world. The movie highlighted the struggles a child with deafblindness goes through. From being misunderstood as a nuisance to the trials of receiving a formal education. The movie shows the journey of the teacher-student duo and proves that deafblindness is not insurmountable.

It has been 16 years since Black. It has been 16 years since a story of a person with deafblindness was shown on the big screen. It is high time that they are represented on it again.

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Is it high time for the Indian film industry to produce films based on stories of people with deafblindness?

Deafblind Representation In The Rest Of The World

Feeling Through is a short film released in 2019 written and directed by Doug Roland based on his chance encounter with a person with deafblindness. A short interaction between Tereek played by Steven Prescod and Artie played by Robert Tarango at a bus stand leaves a powerful impact. The film is authentic in its portrayal. It has Robert Tarango, a person with deafblindness playing the role of Artie- what more can one want?

Tereek saw Artie standing at the bus stand late in the night with a sign that read, ‘I am Deaf and Blind. Tap me if you can help me to cross the street.’ Tereek communicates with Artie through haptic communication that is communication through touch. The short film takes you through a journey of Tereek figuring out how to communicate with Artie while being sensitized along with it. He makes sure that Artie is safe on the bus and hopes that he reaches his destination safely.

A person holding a card that says I am deaf and blind. Tap me if you can help me cross the street.
Artie holding up a card that says, ‘ I am deaf and blind. Tap me if you can help me cross the street.’

In the short film when Tereek and Artie are sitting on the bench waiting for the bus to come, Artie asks Tereek for some water. Tereek does not have any water on him so Artie asks if there is any convenience store where he could buy some as he is really thirsty. Tereek understands that he would have to guide him to the store and back and by that time Artie would miss his bus, so he writes on his palm ‘Can it wait?’ The film captions its interactions with Artie, so it feels as if the audience is interacting with him and are one with Tereek to help him find his way home.

Two hands on the screen. One writing on the palm of another ' Can it wait?'
Tereek writing on Artie’s palm ‘Can it wait?’

In the making of the movie, interpreters used American Sign Language (ASL) to make it easier to interact with Tarango. The inclusion the cast and the crew reflected, showed that people with deafblindness could perform. The short film took the world by storm when it was nominated for the Oscars in 2021. The visibility it created for people with deafblindness in America and the whole world has never been reached before.

The movie was aired on the big screen for an audience with deafblindness using ASL interpreters, audio descriptions, and large open captions on the screen. They got a chance to experience watching a film for the first time with minimum challenges. This could be an inspiration for others to do the same and make it accessible for people with deafblindness to be able to watch movies.

The South Korean movie “My Lovely Angel” is yet to release. It is a story between a lonely man played by Jin Goo, and a little girl with deafblindness. The heartwarming trailer gives us a sneak into the story. With the attention this movie generates it will be used to promote legislation in South Korea to help people with deafblindness. The proposal has already been nicknamed the ‘Helen Keller Law’. This law will help improve the condition of people having deafblindness through better financial support and education.

A man perched down calling to a young girl hidden under the table. The caption reads Hey, say daddy.
A still from the trailer My Lovely Angel.

There has been a lot of misrepresentation of people with disabilities on the big screen and many complex and unique disabilities like deafblindness rarely make it to the screen. So when they do we need to make sure they are authentic and stay true to the community they represent.

Below Are A Few Films That Could Be Good Watch To Understand Deafblindness

  1. The Miracle Worker – 1962, A movie directed by Arther Penn and a story by Helen Keller and William Gibson.
  2. Planet of Snail – 2011, Documentary by Seung-jun Yi.
  3. My World – 2013, a movie directed by Uğur Yücel.
  4. Marie’s story – 2014, directed by Jean-Pierre Améris.
  5. The World at Arm’s length – 2018, directed by Susanne Bohlmann.
  6. Me llamo GENNET – 2018, directed by Miguel Ángel Tobías.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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